* * *
Rain has many uses.
Holly and beech trees like those around me need it to live and grow.
It washes away tracks, obscures footprints. Makes trails harder to follow, and that is a good thing today.
But most of all, it washes blood from my skin, my clothes. I stand, shivering, as the heavens open. Hold out my hands and arms, rub them again and again in the freezing rain, traces of scarlet long gone from my skin but I can’t stop. Red still stains my mind. That will take longer to cleanse, but I remember how, now. Memories can be parcelled up, wrapped in fear and denial, and locked behind a wall. Brick walls, like Wayne built.
Is he dead? Is he dying? I shake, and not just from the cold. Did I leave him suffering? Should I go back, see if I can help him. No matter what he is, or what he has done, does he deserve to lie there alone and in pain?
But if anyone finds out what I’ve done, I’m finished. I’m not supposed to be able to hurt anyone. Even though Wayne attacked me, and all I did was defend myself. Slateds are unable to commit acts of violence, yet I did; Slateds are unable to remember any of their past, yet I do. The Lorders would take me. Probably they’d want to dissect my brain to find out what went wrong, why my Levo failed to control my actions. Maybe they’d do it while I still lived.
No one must ever know. I should have made sure he was dead, but it is too late now. I can’t risk going back. You couldn’t do it then, what makes you think you can now? A voice that mocks, inside.
Numbness spreads through skin, into muscle, bones. So cold. I lean against a tree, knees bending, sinking to the ground. Wanting to stop. Just stop, not move. Not think or feel or hurt, ever again.
Until the Lorders come.
I get up. And my feet stumble into a walk, then a jog, and finally they fly through the trees to the path, along the fields. To the road, where a white van marks the place Wayne disappeared: Best Builders painted down the side. And I panic that someone will see me coming out of the woods here, by his van, the place they will eventually look when his absence is noted. But the road is empty under an angry sky, raindrops pounding so hard against the tarmac they bounce back up again as I run.
Rain. It has some other use, some other meaning, but it trickles and runs through my mind like rivulets down my body. It is gone.
The door opens before I get to it: a worried Mum pulls me inside.
She mustn’t know. Just hours ago I wouldn’t have been able to hide my feelings; I didn’t know how. I school my face, take the panic out of my eyes. Blank like a Slated should be.
‘Kyla, you’re soaked.’ A warm hand on my cheek. Concerned eyes. ‘Are your levels all right?’ she says, grabs my wrist to see my Levo, and I look at it with interest. I should be low, even dangerously so. But things have changed.
6.3. It thinks I’m happy. Huh!
In the bath I get sent to have, I try again. To think. The water is steaming hot and I ease in, still numb. Still shaking. As the heat begins to soothe my body, my mind is a jumbled mess.
Everything before Wayne seems hazy, like looking through smudged glass. As if watching a different person, one who looks the same outside: Kyla, five foot nothing, green eyes, blond hair. Slated. A little different to most, maybe, a bit more aware and with some control issues, but I was Slated: Lorders wiped my mind as punishment for crimes I can no longer remember. My memories and past should be gone forever. So what happened?
This afternoon, I went for a walk. That’s it. I wanted to think about Ben. Waves of fresh pain roll through with his name, worse than before, so much so that I almost cry out.
Focus. Then what happened?
That lowlife, Wayne: he followed me into the woods. I force myself to think of what he did, what he tried to do, his hands grabbing at me, and the fear and rage rise up again. Somehow he made me angry, so full of insane fury I lashed out without thought. And something inside changed. Shifted, fell, realigned. His bloody body flashes in my mind, and I flinch: I did that? Somehow, a Slated – me – was violent. And it wasn’t just that: I could remember things, feelings and images from my past. From before I was Slated. Impossible!
Not impossible. It happened.
Now I’m not just Kyla, the name given to me at the hospital when I was Slated, less than a year ago. I am something – someone – else. And I’m not sure I like it.
I half spin out of the bath, sloshing water on the floor.
‘Kyla, is everything all right?’
The door. Someone – Mum – just knocked on the door. That is all. I force my fists to relax.
‘Fine,’ I manage to say.
‘You’ll turn into a prune if you stay in there any longer. Dinner is ready.’
Downstairs, along with Mum are my sister, Amy, and her boyfriend, Jazz. Amy: Slated and assigned to this family like me, but different in so many ways. Always sunny, full of life and chatter, tall, her skin a warm chocolate where I am small, quiet, a pale shadow. And Jazz is a natural, not Slated. Quite sensible apart from when he stares at gorgeous Amy all moonily. That Dad is away is a relief. I can do without his careful eyes tonight, measuring, assessing, making sure no foot is put wrong.
Talk of Amy’s coursework, Jazz’s new camera. Amy babbles excitedly about getting asked to work after school at the local doctor’s surgery where she did work experience.
Mum glances at me. ‘We’ll see,’ she says. And I see something else: she doesn’t want me alone after school.
‘I don’t need a babysitter,’ I say, though unsure as I say it if it’s true.
Gradually the evening fades into night and I go upstairs. Brush my teeth and stare in the mirror. Green eyes stare back, wide and familiar, but seeing things they didn’t before.
Ordinary things, but nothing is ordinary.
Sharp pain in my ankle insists I stop running, demands it. Pursuit is faint in the distance but soon will be closer. He won’t rest.
I dive through trees and splash along a freezing creek to cover my steps. Then crawl on my belly deep under brambles, ignoring pulls on my hair, clothes. Sudden pain as one catches my arm.
I must not be found. Not again.
I scrabble at the ground, pulling leaves, cold and rotting, from the forest floor over my arms and legs. Light sweeps through the trees above: I freeze. It drops, lower, right over my hiding place. I only start breathing again when it continues beyond without pause.
Footsteps now. They get closer, then carry on, faint and further away until they disappear from hearing.
Now, wait. I count out an hour; stiff, damp, cold. With every scurrying creature, every branch moving in the breeze, I start in fright. But the more minutes tick past, the more I start to believe. This time, I might succeed.
The sky is just brightening as I back out, inch by careful inch. Birds begin their morning songs and my spirits sing along with them as I emerge. Have I finally won at Nico’s own version of hide and seek? Could I be the first?
Light blinds my eyes.
‘There you are!’ Nico grabs my arm, yanks me to my feet and I cry out in pain at my ankle, but it doesn’t hurt as much as this disappointment, hot and bitter. I failed, again.
He brushes leaves from my clothes. Slips a warm arm around my waist to help me walk back to camp, and his closeness, his presence, resonate through my body despite the fear and pain.
‘You know you can never get away, don’t you?’ he says. He is exultant and disappointed in me, all at once. ‘I will always find you.’ Nico leans down and kisses my forehead. A rare gesture of affection that I know will in no way ease whatever punishment he devises.
I can never get away.
He will always find me…
* * *
A distant rrrring calls into deep nothingness. It pulls me to a moment of regret, half awake, half confusion, then a slow drift back to dreams.
The rrrring sounds again.
Awake in an instant, I spring up, but something holds me and I almost scream, wrestle and throw it to the ground and crouch in a fighting stance. Ready for attack. Ready for anything…
But not this. Alien, threatening shapes blur and change, become ordinary things. A bed. An alarm clock, still ringing, on top of a dresser. My restraints, blankets: most on the floor now. Carpet under bare feet. Dim light through an open window. And a grumpy, sleepy cat, meowing protests and caught up in blankets on the floor.
Get a grip.
I hit the stop button on the alarm. Force my breathing to slow – in, out, in, out – try to calm my pounding heart, but still my nerves scream.
Sebastian stares from the floor, fur bristling.
‘Do you still know me, cat?’ I whisper, reach a hand for him to sniff, then stroke his fur, as much to soothe myself as him. I pull the blankets back into order on the bed and he jumps up, eventually flops down, but keeps his eyes half open. Watching.
When I woke, I thought I was there. Half asleep I knew every detail. Makeshift shelters, tents. Damp and cold, wood smoke, the rustle of trees, predawn birds. Quiet voices. But the more awake I become, the more it is gone. Details fall away. A dream, or a real place?
My Levo says mid-happy at 5.8, yet my heart still beats fast. After what just happened my levels should have plummeted. I twist my Levo on my wrist, hard: nothing. It should at least cause pain. Slated criminals can’t do violence to self or others, not while a Levo keeps guard of every feeling. Not while it causes blackouts or death if the wearer gets too upset or angry. With what I did yesterday, I should be dead: zapped by the chip they put in my brain when I was Slated.
Echoes of last night’s nightmare fill my mind: I can never get away. He will always find me…
Nico! That is his name. He is not an insubstantial dream. He is real. Pale blue eyes gleam in my mind, eyes that can glint cold or hot in an instant. He’ll know what all this means. A living, breathing part of my past that has somehow appeared in this life: as my biology teacher, of all things. A strange transformation from…from…what? Slippery memory falls away. My fists clench in frustration. I’d had him there, clear, who and what he was; and then, nothing.
Nico will know. But should I ask? Whatever he was, or is now, one thing I do know: he is dangerous. Just thinking his name makes my stomach clench, both with fear, and with longing. To be close to him no matter the cost.
He will always find me.
A knock on the door. ‘Kyla, are you up? You’re going to be late for school.’
‘Your chariot, ladies,’ Jazz says and bows. He puts one foot up on the side of the car to yank the door open. I clamber into the back seat, Amy in the front. And though it has a feeling of ritual about it, every morning the same, it is so alien. A safe sameness that rankles.
I stare out the window on the way: farms. Stubbled fields. Cows and sheep stare, chewing and placid as we go past. Herded to school, not questioning the forces that channel us into our prescribed lives. What is the difference?
‘Kyla? Earth to Kyla.’
Amy has turned in her seat.
‘Sorry. Did you say something?’
‘I was just asking if you mind if I work after school? It’s four days a week, Monday to Thursday. Mum isn’t sure you should be alone so much. She said to talk to you about it.’
‘Truly, it’s fine. I don’t mind. When do you start?’
‘Tomorrow,’ she says, with a guilty look.
‘You already told them you could, didn’t you,’ I say.
‘Busted!’ Jazz says. ‘But what about me? What about spending time with me?’ And they pretend-argue the rest of the way.
The morning is a fog. Scanning my ID into each lesson, sitting down, pretending to listen. Trying to channel my face into attentive and eager to learn, so no one will have reason to focus any closer. Scanning out again. Lunch, alone: being ignored, as usual, by most of the other students who keep clear of Slateds. Though they mostly liked Ben, me, not so much. Especially now he has vanished.